Why Project Teams Frequently Fail at Brainstorming

Introduction:

How often have we heard executives and project managers say, “We need to come up with some new ideas” or “We need to find some elegant solutions to this project problem”? The project manager then sends out e-mails to all the team members with the hope of filling every available seat in a conference room with the belief that the more people that attend, the greater the number of ideas generated. The session may be virtual or onsite. Brainstorming sessions can exist anytime during the life cycle of a project where there is a large or small decision to be made.

When the sessions work as planned, participants may feel elated in the creativity that they participated in. However, for some, they may experience feelings of anxiety, a loss of empowerment and even a hatred of the upcoming meeting based upon past experiences in such sessions.

Onsite brainstorming:

Before we had advancements in technology, most brainstorming sessions were onsite. The onsite brainstorming session begins with the project manager spending less than five minutes discussing the problem or goal, and then asking the participants for ideas and solutions. For most participants, this may very well be the first time they heard about the problem or goal. They look at each other in amazement, and begin thinking about quick, rather than the best, solutions. For others, this may appear as a session for them to vent their emotions and believe that they are being asked to support a decision already made by senior management or project governance. Some people might believe that the session is their chance to exploit their hidden agenda.

Some people refuse to speak, even when asked, for fear of being criticized. Others might love the attention and want to spend an enormous amount of time in control of the discussion and defending their position. There may be people that have no ideas to contribute and throw their support behind the first idea that is brought up. It is not uncommon for some people to get hung up on details that may be irrelevant. Some people just look at the clock waiting for the meeting to end or are multitasking using their cell phones or laptops. Those people that may have good ideas may feel intimidated to speak if there are people in the room that are recognized as subject matter experts.

Some people may wish to express their ideas but need to think about the problem a bit longer. 

The session, which was probably scheduled for one hour, finishes at the end of two hours or longer with just a few ideas, many of which may need further evaluation. The project manager then prepares a list of action items and tells everyone that another e-mail will be sent out for the follow-up brainstorming session(s). 

Reasons for failure:

Most brainstorming session simply do not provide the expected results despite starting out with admirable intentions. This is a fact regardless if you are using the waterfall approach, agile or Scrum. It is not because the brainstorming process does not work, but because the sessions are conducted poorly. Understanding the reasons for brainstorming failure often serve as a motivational force for corrective action. Some of the most critical reasons for failure include:

  • Lack of training for the facilitators and attendees: Most project management training programs discuss brainstorming but never fully train people on the right way for the sessions to be conducted. Project managers can do more harm than good by facilitating brainstorming sessions without being adequately trained. There are people professionally trained in brainstorming practices. In such cases, the professional should conduct the session and the project manager may simply be a participant, taking notes if necessary, and answering questions. Ideally, everyone should be trained in brainstorming techniques, so they have a good understanding of expectations when attending such sessions.
  • People spend too much time on solutions: People tend to focus quickly upon solutions without fully understanding the problem, goal or question presented. While having people come prepared with ideas and solutions seems a good idea, the focus must be on the right question or problem before generating ideas. Sufficient time must be allowed for people to understand why the meeting was called. Even if this is explained in the invitation e-mail, it should be reinforced at the onset of the meeting for alignment to the issues at hand. Solving the wrong problem is a waste of precious time and money.
  • Poorly trained facilitators begin the meeting by immediately asking for ideas: The meeting should begin with an understanding of the ground rules (such as no distractions or interruptions), creating the right mindset, explaining the expectations on behavior of the participants (following directions), how the meeting will be conducted, and a clarification of the purpose of the meeting. Even though people may have attended brainstorming training sessions previously, taking a few minutes to explain the ground rules for the session is helpful.
  • Failing to consider the fears and apprehensions of the participants: Some people have an inherent fear of brainstorming sessions and this includes experienced personnel. The apprehensions might include fear of being criticized, fear of being drawn into a conflict, and fear of change if the implementation of some of the ideas might remove one from their comfort zone.
  • Too long of a meeting: Brainstorming sessions in some companies may be as short as 15 minutes. Meetings that go beyond 1-2 hours make people edgy and looking at the clock hoping for adjournment. A study conducted at the University of Amsterdam showed that, when people work alone, they tend to come up with more ideas than when working in a group. It may be best to ask people to work first alone, or in small groups, to come up with their best ideas and then share the information in larger groups for evaluation.
  • Large groups can stifle creativity: There is a valid argument that small groups of 5-10 people yield better results than large groups. Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s CEO, calls it the two-pizza rule: If the group can eat more than two pizzas, it is too big. The sessions may be composed of subject matter experts and may not include employees that might later be assigned to the implementation of the desired solution. Having a large group does not mean that more ideas will be forthcoming. Some people may feel intimidated by the size of the group and contribute only a limited number of ideas if at all. With large groups, people worry about how others will view their ideas and may be afraid to contribute for fear of criticism. People tend to contribute more meaningful results when in small groups. If the group is large, it may be best to break the participants into smaller groups at the start of the session for idea generation and then in a large group near the session’s end for idea evaluation. Strong leadership is necessary to prevent the loudest voices and largest groups from drowning out the smaller voices and individualism.
  • Not building on the ideas of others: Sometimes combining ideas may generate the best possible solution. For this to work correctly, people must be given ample time to express their thoughts and digest what they heard. This is the reason why smaller groups at first are often best. 
  • Having the wrong balance of experience and knowledge in the session: People should be invited to attend based upon the contribution that they can make rather than simply because of their rank, title, or availability. Inviting people that have a valid interest in the topic, even if they are not part of the project team, may bring forth good ideas.
  • Not having a diverse group: Having a diverse brainstorming team may be advantageous. More information may come forth that leads to a different and better solution to a problem. Diverse teams usually do a better job challenging the assumptions, looking at problems and solutions differently, and dividing up the work requirements. Each member of the diverse group may come up with good ideas for parts of the solution and, when all the pieces are assembled, a good solution may result.
  • Allowing one person to dominate the discussion: Some people like to hear themselves talk and try to dominate the discussion. This can be demoralizing to others and the frustration can prevent others from wishing to speak.
  • Information overload: Brainstorming sessions run the risk of information overload. This is particularly true if multiple brainstorming sessions are needed. Information overload can be demoralizing but can be controlled using idea management software. 
  • Premature evaluation: Some groups tend to quickly jump on the first acceptable idea and run with it without proper evaluation. Forcing participants to vote without due consideration of the facts can result in the implementation of a suboptimal solution that everyone will question.

The need for brainstorming structure:

Simply putting a group of people in a room and saying, “Let’s come up with great ideas”, does not work well. Professional facilitation and session structure are necessary to maximize performance expectations. Conducting a brainstorming session is not the same as holding a weekly or monthly team meeting.

Some of the things that a company can do include:

  • First and foremost, it is best to have a professionally trained facilitator conduct the brainstorming session to get people to contribute ideas, bring order from chaos, and limit distractions
  • Send out an agenda early that clearly states the purpose of the meeting, the ground rules, and the topic(s) to be discussed
  • If handouts will be used in the session, it may be best to provide the handouts with the agenda so people can review them prior to the meeting and then come prepared to ask the right questions and possibly make decisions
  • Clearly articulate the reason for the meeting and the goal and make sure that the goal is reachable in a reasonable time frame
  • While asking people to “think outside of the box” seems like a good idea, the best solution may be when the participants think “inside the box” instead
  • Invite participants that may have an interest in the topic even though they are not part of the project team
  • If meeting in person, ask people not to bring distractions such as cell phones, notepads, or laptops
  • Do not criticize any ideas no matter how bad they sound
  • If market research is required, ask the participants to obtain information from the end users rather than others
  • Encourage everyone to come prepared to speak and to share their ideas, whether good or bad
  • Document all ideas because some ideas may be valuable later for issues on other projects. There are several excellent software packages that deal with idea management and brainstorming activities.
  • Some people are combative and continuously fight for their belief or their dislike for someone else’s position. These people must be controlled to prevent the meeting from losing the intended purpose

Virtual brainstorming sessions:

The previous discussion assumed that the people attending the brainstorming session were in the same building or location. Generally, workers spend a minimum of 25 percent of their time in virtual communications. This percentage is increasing as companies are now embarking upon virtual brainstorming sessions. More people are working from home because of several factors including COVID-19, the cost of office rental space, and the workers needed for the sessions may be dispersed geographically across multiple continents. 

Virtual brainstorming is somewhat more difficult than onsite brainstorming because the virtual environment may require a different set of tools and software for communication, viewing, recording and displaying of ideas, and interaction among participants. If the group must be broken down in smaller groups, multiple concurrent virtual sessions may be necessary. The proper use of virtual brainstorming tools can overcome the productivity loss encountered in onsite brainstorming, bring out more creative ideas per person, and generate a higher degree of satisfaction among the team members.

Virtual brainstorming has advantages and disadvantages, many of which are like onsite brainstorming. The benefits include:

  • The workers are under less peer pressure and may not be intimidated by others on the call
  • It may be easier to put together a diverse team of participants
  • People are working alone or in small groups and may come up with more fruitful ideas than in larger groups
  • Large groups can participate virtually, and it is less likely that someone will want to dominate the discussion with their ideas
  • Large groups can be subdivided into smaller groups without worrying about title, rank, and expertise
  • There is less wasted time in virtual sessions than onsite sessions

There are several disadvantages including:

  • Facilitators must ensure that the proper virtual tools are in place
  • It may take more time at the onset of the meeting to make sure that everyone is on the same page
  • Sharing documents may be difficult virtually; facilitators must ensure that all participants have the appropriate handouts
  • The way that communication takes place may make it difficult for workers to build on the ideas of others or to combine ideas
  • It may be difficult to break large groups into smaller groups virtually
  • Virtual participants may be less likely to ask questions than if they were in the conference room with the other team members
  • Professional facilitators are trained in emotional intelligence and how to read body language. They can observe the expressions on people’s faces and watch what they do with their hands or the way they are sitting as an indication of whether they are upset or in agreement with the discussion. Their fears and apprehensions can be visible by how they act. This is difficult to observe virtually.
  • Having an open dialogue where everyone gets to speak may be difficult to enforce
  • Having too large a group may prevent or discourage members from providing input
  • People may be multitasking or distracted, and the facilitator has limited control over the meeting 

Recommendations:

Effective brainstorming practices increases the chances of success and fosters teamwork.

Any company can get lucky and occasionally come up with one or two brilliant ideas. But if a company wants a continuous stream of great ideas, then educating project teams in correct brainstorming practices is mandatory. Brainstorming education should be a requirement for all employees if a company wants a sustained competitive advantage. The training must consider the challenges of virtual brainstorming sessions as well as onsite sessions.

References:

Altier, William, Why Managers Fail to Solve Problems Quickly, Management Review, Sept 1981, Vol. 70, Issue 9, p.36

Chamorro-Premuzic, Tomas, Why Group Brainstorming is a Waste of Time, Harvard Business Review, March 25, 2015, digital article, p.2-4

Chamorro-Premuzic, Tomas, Why Brainstorming Works Better Online, Harvard Business Review, April 2, 2015, digital article, p.2-4

Doneva, Svetlana, Keep That Box Firmly Closed, Finweek, Mar 24, 2011, p.21

Gobble, MaryAnne M., The persistence of Brainstorming, Research Technology Management, Jan/Feb 2014, Vol, 57 Issue 1, p.64-66

Markman, Art, The Problem-Solving Process that Prevents Groupthink, Harvard Business Review, November 25, 2015, p.2-4

McCafferty, Dennis, Tips for Building Successful Virtual Teams, Baseline, Apr 9, 2014, p.1-1

Moore, Laura B., Brainstorming Your Team to Happiness, PM World Today, Vol.14, Issue 3, Special section, p.1-4


Harold Kerzner is an American engineer, management consultant, Emeritus Professor of Systems Management at Baldwin Wallace University, and Sr. Executive Director for Project Management at the International Institute for Learning, known for his work in the field of project management. You can find his book on the subject of Innovation Project Management here. To contact Harold Kerzner, reach out at [email protected]

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